Monday, January 14, 2008

Stars get in my eyes......

We are beginning to learn that the world of Michelin ranked restaurants is a lot like, especially. In soccer, on any given day, any team can beat any other team. Just last week a tiny Division 3B team nearly beat Real took a last second goal by galactico Guti to save the best (or at least the most expensive team) in the galaxy from losing to some random guys with day jobs in Alicante..

Eventually though, day after day, class will out......and the galacticos will usually kick some serious amateur ass. Michelin's inspectors are the talent scouts of the food world who are supposed to be able sort the galacticos from the day-job guys.....along with the places that are expensive and pretty but not good (the places most Americans go, in other words).

They do a pretty good job in Spain and Italy. In France, I am not so sure. The London guide is utter bullshit. The jury is still out on the California guide.

Basically, in Spain and Italy, a one-star restaurant will give you superior food with a lot of attention to detail. The service will be fussy, and the winelist will be wide and varied. The dining room will be immaculate.....and even the bathrooms. The Cachagua Store will not be getting any stars anytime soon.

The jump up to two stars seems mostly cosmetic. The dining room will be exquisite, and the service will be super fussy. There will be a wine-steward and a crazy cellar. The glassware and china will be scary to handle. The bathrooms will have stuff you want to the soaps, towels and toothbrushes at Mugaritz. The food is not always much better than at the one-stars, but the kitchen will be big and immaculate, with lots of guys.....probably a dozen., which works out to be about one per table since most places are small by American standards. Mugaritz has a 1500 square foot dining room served by a 3500 square foot, two storey kitchen.....with as many as 25 guys working in back.

Going up the final notch to three stars is to get to degrees of perfection. Everything will be technically perfect......some things will be so over the top that the putting a grade on the objective quality is purely personal. Ferrari or Maserati? Chelsea or Man U? Yankees or Red Sox?

History and politics play a role as well. In Spain, Arzak has been a king for a long time, but the the family for 50 years.... is limiting. Still, Juan Mari Arzak is a master, keeps right out on the cutting edge of the weirdness, and balances it with a strong traditional, local feel. He has Xabi Guttierez working as a designer and artistic concept guy in a studio out back to keep the kids in the kitchen and the molecular cuisine guys on their toes. Still, lots of the new guard think he is stodgy and past his prime.

Not me.

Akelarre just got its third star last year. Pedro Subijiana is a contemporary of Arzak's and long labored in the two star range. Akelarre is physcially spectacular.....overlooking the Cantabrian sea from the top of a mountain. The service is actually intelligent.....the waiters and wine guys will engage you in philosophical discussions about the food and wine......which is not surprising since Pedro is that way himself. Poet, philosopher, artist. He gets the same sniveling from the young guys as Arzak. Again, not from me. Amanda and I always cry....even though we know we are going to and try not to.

But, the new wave guys think Pedro is an old fat guy also past his prime.

It is not coincidental that the new wave guys are almost all based out of Barcelona, and Arzak and Akelarre are on the other coast.

Yankess and Red Sox.

Last year we ate at Can Fabres on the other coast north of Barcelona. Can Fabres is nestled into a little village in an ancient building on a side street. An insane amount of money was spent inside......spectacular glasswork and fabrics and woods. The food was super old school though: technically perfect but not as visually and sensorily inspiring as the boys from Basque country. The service was beyond creepy. We had a chick apparently assigned just to watch us fulll time from ten feet away. I always try to sneak some pictures of the dishes to help my feeble mind remember the ten or twelve courses....not even close to possible at this place. This woman was supported by a maitre d', a captain, a waiter, a runner and a wine steward. Foie, pigeon, salmonete, venison, octupus.....Jesus wept. And big portions. We were so riched out that we literallty gagged on the underdone stuffed baby octopus. There was nowhere to hide it, and we could not even sneak it into a purse or pocket with the spy chick staring at us. We had to leave it on the plate.....and then the chef came out to grill us about why we had not eaten it. I needed Etienne Merle with old school guy genetically, professionally, and spiritually able to deal with that kind of weight of fat and protein. 100 pound Amanda was out of her league......

Meanwhile, Mugaritz gets only two stars. Brand new, super modern in a gorgeous country setting. Crazy artsy tableware, china and glassware. A world famous wine steward. Insane attention to quality and detail in the kitchen and equally insane modern twists on local produce with dizzing flavors and textures. Not to mention that bathroom. Go figure.

Last year Amanda and I totalled eighteen Michelin stars in our 21 day trip. We hit three three-stars, a two-star, and a passel of one-stars. And, of course......two of our favorite meals were at places not even rated by because it is so small and idiosyncratic.....the other because the chef rejects the whole star concept and refuses to play ball with Michelin.

Last year Zortziko's (a one-star) food was just passable, and only the wine guy brought us back for a second try. This year Zortziko┬┤s food blew our minds.

Last year we had two beautiful meals at Andra Mari (also a one-star).....starting and finishing there. Each course was perfect, and we rated it our favorite restaurant of the trip. I spent the past year trying to convince the young turks of the Spanish food scene to even think about Andra Mari as being worthy. I was thinking two stars, for sure.

So....we were really looking forward to our return today. We were thrilled to see the old Civil War vet still charmingly extorting euros in the car park.....thrilled to see the view of the alps across the valley.....thrilled to be recognized and welcomed with smiles all around......

And it sucked.

One inspiring dish amongst the nine courses (foie wrapped in smoked bread with cherry membrillo), one idea worth stealing (mango ravioli....with the mango as the pasta wrap), a couple of OK ones......and some clangers. Super undercooked attempt to imitate the Arzak poached egg. Gluten-y espuma. The martini glass my copa de txangurro came in was even chipped and cracked.....which is suicidally poor attention to detail in Michelin land. Even Cachagua doesn't let that slide..

Turns out the chef "won" the contract to run the kitchen at the new Sheraton in Bilbao.

Amanda and I feel like it was a death in the family.

Oh, well......we have two new one-stars, a new two-star of the insane Mugaritz variety (El Poblet), and three new three-stars to look forward to. Where there is life there is hope.


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